Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

fortune's foolPlaying the villain…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

As a Brit, the total extent of my knowledge of the Lincoln assassination was that some guy called John Wilkes Booth shot him in a theatre. This biography sets out to examine the whole life of Booth with a view to seeing what brought him to that point.

Booth was one of a family of ten, son of the famous actor Junius Booth, and destined for the stage from an early age. His father was a drunk who had spells of drink-related violence. Often away from home because of his career, much of the children’s upbringing fell to their mother, who seems to have been a loving but rather ineffectual soul. When John was thirteen, it came to light that his parents’ marriage was bigamous, his father having been married before to a wife still living. The book tells us about young John’s education and early attempt at running the family farm after his father’s death, before finally accepting that he couldn’t make a financial go of it and going into the family tradition of acting. While it’s interesting to speculate how much these early experiences may have affected John, speculation it must remain. The accounts of his character at this time, and later, come mainly from people speaking or writing after Lincoln’s assassination, so it’s hard to know how much their views are coloured by hindsight. While some people seem to have seen him as a nice, polite young boy and a good friend, there are conflicting stories of him being a bully and torturing cats. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.
Depiction of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From Wikipedia.

The section on his early acting career is better documented as far as the facts go – where he performed, what roles he played, etc – but the confusion surrounding his character remains. Being handsome and athletic, he became a heartthrob, with legions of admiring female fans, but he clearly felt overshadowed by his father’s reputation, and perhaps his elder brothers’, choosing at first to drop Booth from his name and to be billed as John Wilkes. Alford looks at contemporaneous reviews and later reports to try to determine how good he was as an actor, concluding that though he showed a great deal of promise, his career wasn’t long enough for this to fully develop. At this young age, his general fitness enabled him to be a very physical performer, specialising in realistic swordfights, in which he sometimes took it so far that he injured his opponents. His signature role was Shakespeare’s Richard III, and his opponents in the fight scene would sometimes have to remind him to ‘die’ before he wore them down completely.

John with his actin brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar
John with his acting brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr., in Julius Caesar

The real interest, of course, is in trying to get at the roots of why Booth developed such a hatred of Lincoln. Although not really a Southerner, Booth came to love the South, especially Virginia, and was violently anti-abolitionist. He was present at the execution of John Brown, having begged to be allowed to join the Virginia militia who were sent to Charlestown to ensure peace during Brown’s incarceration. But when war broke out, his mother made him promise not to join the Confederate army, and Alford suggests that this may have been part of the reason for his later actions – guilt at having played no active part in the fighting. His family lived in the North, and his brother Edwin was pro-Union and a Lincoln supporter. At first, John also was pro-Union, but held Lincoln and the abolitionists guilty for causing the secession of the Southern states. As the war dragged on, reports suggest that Booth became more extreme in the expression of his views, putting himself at risk of unpopularity, if not worse, in the Northern states where during this period he was spending most of his time. At this stage, some people were beginning to describe him as ‘crazy’ (though again, how much of that is hindsight isn’t totally clear).


Alford goes into great detail over the plot, which was originally to kidnap Lincoln and ransom him for the freedom of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in the North. Delay after delay, however, meant that the war ended before the plan was carried out. While it’s clear from the plotting that Booth wasn’t quite the ‘lone gunman’ I’d wrongly supposed, he certainly seems to have been the main mover and in the end it appears he alone decided to change the plan to assassination. The description of the assassination and Booth’s flight and eventual capture is detailed and well-told and, whatever people felt about his actions, it appears that in the end Booth died bravely, winning the admiration, sometimes grudging, of those who witnessed his death. Alford interestingly looks at the heroic roles Booth had been steeped in from an early age and speculates on the influence they had on Booth’s actions – in particular the role of Brutus and his assassination of Julius Caesar. It seems clear that Booth expected to be the darling of the South for his actions, and he died disappointed that the general feeling in the South was that he had made the post-war situation even tougher for them.

lincoln memorial

Alford concludes by debunking some of the mythology that grew up of Booth having escaped and made a new life for himself elsewhere. He follows the body, so to speak, from the barn to its final resting place, showing how Booth’s corpse was identified by family members and people who knew him well.

Terry Alford
Terry Alford

There are two fundamental things that are required to make a great biography – a well-researched, well-written narrative and an interesting subject. This one certainly meets the first criterion; Alford has researched his subject thoroughly and has a flowing, accessible writing style. Unfortunately though, apart from shooting Lincoln, Booth’s story is only moderately interesting and, despite Alford’s best endeavours, many things about his character and actions remain clouded, relying on hindsight rather than contemporaneous reports. For what it’s worth (not much), my own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him. And since we’re still interested in him 150 years on, perhaps he achieved part of his aim – though in the end playing the villain rather than the hero.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford

  1. This is interesting and something I knew nothing about, apart from recognising the name of John Wilkes. Love your observation of him going down in history as playing the villian rather than the hero. (And it’s good to see you back after a little break!)

    • Yes, it’s surprising really how little American history we get taught over here. But then I don’t suppose they get taught much about ours either apart from the bits that affected them.

      (Thanks! 🙂 )

  2. Excellent review, FictionFan, and spot on (in my opinion) in terms of your view of Booth. There are people who are that determined to seek glory; and if you combine that with the strong possibility of Booth’s political feelings, you get someone who could feel driven to the sort of act Booth committed. I’m glad too that you bring up the impact on people’s opinions of later events. Certainly people’s view of Booth was profoundly affected by what he did; hindsight’s like that (e.g. ‘I always said he was the murdering type!’). You see that in a lot of other news stories and in crime fiction too; I think it’s an actual phenomenon.

    • Thanks, Margot! Yes, and like so many of these attention-seekers he seemed willing to distort his view of reality to suit his fantasy. He really seemed to misjudge how the South would feel about the whole thing – sadly, just like many of today’s nutcases, killing in support of causes and making the situation even harder to resolve as a result. I think you’re right – I think it’s maybe a subconscious way of us denying that we’ve been fooled…

  3. “My own conclusion is that Booth was an attention-seeking nutcase, determined to go down in history at whatever cost to himself or those around him.” This made me giggle. Great review!
    What a sad waste of a life. Many today seem determined to follow in a similar path to fame.

    • Haha! Yes, you can tell I’m not a psychologist really, can’t you? But I do think the word ‘nutcase’ should be used more often – it’s so often apt! 😉

      I know – I couldn’t help thinking of all the people killing in the name of various causes today, and just making the chance of finding solutions even more remote…

  4. Yes, like L Marie I too giggled, after the sobriety of the rest of your excellent review, at the witty FF wind-up! Glad to see you back, as well, and hoped the blog break has left you vimmed, vigoured, and knocking doors on the campaign trail!

    • Haha! I must say it wasn’t the kind of story that inspired me to great heights of humour overall! Thank’ee, m’dear – I have a stock of reviews, all neatly written and drafted and for once won’t still be doing tomorrow’s review at 2 am. Well, except I haven’t written tomorrow’s yet, now I think of it…

      Trying to ignore the campaign – I’m watching the TV with my fingers in my ears now. And oddly, don’t feel I’m missing much… 😉

      • Oh, I know, rarely have I felt so EE Cummings about an election – a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man – they are all fairy tale story tellers with smoke, mirrors, moonshine and a veritable lorry load of wool. Truth? What Truth? Just a load of idiots ( or even worse) making rude signs at other idiots. I shall of course cast my vote, because not to do so would seem like a betrayal of something ancestors fought and died for, but democracy isn’t quite what those ancestors might have expected it to be, and maybe, when no one tells the unspun truth, or rarely, and we’ve all come to be so like baying wolves around the human stumbles and gaffes, all that can be offered is the anodyne untruth, the line of the day. Gosh. A sudden rant!

        • Well, I have almost decided not to vote for the first time in my life. With the SNP joining in in the general ‘don’t believe a word they say’, I’m stumped. I’ve taken to tweeting Nicola Sturgeon every time she accuses someone else of lying to remind her that she promised the independence vote would ‘settle the question for a generation’ – boy, they must breed quick in the SNP! However, my MP actually turned up at the door to canvas – a first! He had one of the biggest majorities in the country last time (Labour), so I said I wouldn’t be voting but I didn’t expect it would matter. But he says it looks as though he might lose – which would be a major political earthquake in this constituency. I might have to vote for him after all… he’s quite a nice chap and I think he’s reasonably sincere…

          But democracy is deeply disappointing. I still think I might stand as dictator one of these days…

          • If you don’t vote you are just a John Wilkes Booth without the public profile – destroying democracy one bit of apathy at a time. I agree it is a really hard choice this time though – I’m getting a postal vote so I have to make up my mind even sooner. Decisions, decisions.

            But every time I lose faith in democracy, I listen to Any Answers on the radio and I think “crikey if these nutters are voting I had better try and out-vote them or who knows who they’ll elect”.

            • HahahaHA!!! That’s the best reason for voting I’ve ever heard! I shall pick a loony on this week’s Question Time and vote in the opposite direction…

  5. Have you read Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation”? It’s part history, part travelogue about Booth and others. This is for when you’re in the mood for something a little less exhaustive…

  6. “An attention-seeking nutcase” – that would be the technical term, presumably? Good review – glad to see you back after your break.

  7. An interesting sounding study although it doesn’t sound like this subject would have been interesting at all without the interest into his actions and since you sum up your thoughts so succinctly… 😉

    • I’m guessing he’d never have been remembered if he hadn’t shot Lincoln. His father was apparently a huge star in his day, and yet I’d never heard of him… so now we know how to go about being remembered… 😉

  8. Welcome back, FF — you’ve been missed!! Funny how, even 150 years later, we’re still interested in learning the details of how and why Booth did what he did. I’m certain that killing Lincoln didn’t help either the North of the South, probably for different reasons. “Nutcase” seems like a fitting description of Booth, though!

    • Aw, thanks, Debbie! 🙂 I know – I was thinking while reading that probably our interest in these kind of events is an unfortunate encouragement to “nutcases” today to go about achieving immortality in the same way. But I still kept reading…

  9. It’s true in the comments about learning little of our own history never mind other countries. I often wonder what we were taught in history when I was at school. I do find American history interesting even though I know little about it, so thank you for a great review.

    • I guess there’s just so much history, and more every year! I feel as if I’ve spent most of my life reading history on and off and yet there are still huge areas I know absolutely nothing about. Oh, well! 😉

    • I suspect that’s true of all these people who are only famous for one thing. However the stuff about his acting career was interesting just for the snapshot of what the theatrical world was like back then.

  10. Wah-hoooooooooo you are back! I was ready to chew my nails. 😉

    I stood in Ford’s Theater one warm afternoon, looked around and pondered about the whole thing, FF, and I came to the same conclusion. And yet, it is still a mystery in some ways.

    • Haha! Aw, thanks, Susan! 😀

      I’m afraid I still found it a mystery even after reading the book. I guess no normal person can really understand what would make a person do such a thing when it would serve no useful purpose…

      • A case might be made for him being a psychopath. He fits the profile to a good degree. He really went off when Lincoln wanted to give citizenship to the freed slaves as well. And obviously, a person who has a psychological disorder cannot be understood by people who are “normal.” So, if it makes no sense to you, that is probably a good thing. 😀

  11. Bullying behaviour and torturing cats is always a bad sign. This true story sounds more like fiction to me, but as an Australian I don’t know much about American history, (although we get plenty of exposure to American pop culture).

    • Haha! Yes – and my cats Tommy & Tuppence are in total agreement with that! It always surprises me how little I really know about American history for exactly the same reason – we’re saturated in their pop culture too.

  12. What a bummer overall. I mean, I’d like to hear all the details. Did you ever see the Twilight Zone that was based on this chap? I did, but I don’t remember it much. I suppose that makes it useless.

    Very glad to have you back, madam! (Another good review, too.)

    Was it mentioned why Booth used a girls’ gun to kill Lincoln?

    • Not the details about torturing cats! Tuppence would get cranky! No, never saw it. I knew absolutely nothing about him before reading the book and sadly, with my memory, I’ll have achieved that state again in a few weeks…

      *smiles bigly* Thanks, C-W-W! (Never feel I’m properly back till you’ve popped by, you know, you know…)

      *laughs* No, he must have forgotten to mention that! Was it pink?

      • We should’ve sent him a cougar. He wouldn’t have tortured that! *laughs* Oh, I bet you’ll remember bits. But…everything seems mostly conjecture, so…just make it up if you’re ever asked about him!

        *smiles more bigly!* Sorry I was late!

        I hope not! Imagine how ghastly that would’ve been!

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